Unlocking the Energy in Musical Transitions

I had a tough time transitioning back to New York City after teaching the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program this year. I’d spent the week on the spacious, green campus of Edinboro University, with its peaceful lake in the middle inhabited by geese and ducks. We had lots of time every day to practice meditation, explore great music, and talk openly about our experiences as performers and teachers. And in the evenings, from my quiet, fourth-floor dorm room, I gazed at the sunset. On the flight home I savored these memories and took pictures of amazing clouds.

Landing at LaGuardia Airport in New York was a shock. The atmosphere was dreary, and when I got to the baggage claim one of my bags was missing. I went to look for it in the luggage office and found two women sitting behind a desk, both of whom spoke to me rudely and seemed depressed. After several minutes, they found my bag, but when I went to get a taxi, I soon saw that the new system required a long, arduous walk with my two suitcases. Eventually I got into a cab, and as we crossed the bridge into Manhattan and navigated crowded city streets between 12-story buildings, I started worrying that I might not be able to adjust to being back.

When I finally arrived at my apartment, my husband greeted me with a warm hug and our cat let out an excited yelp. The cozy yet beautiful and richly colored rooms were a welcome change from the spacious yet neutral dorm. But I was back on the ground floor of a New York City apartment, looking out on an empty courtyard and a street lined with cars, amidst the constant rumble of traffic, punctuated by occasional sirens and snatches of sidewalk conversation. The tall, green trees just outside our apartment were largely obscured from view by scaffolding, on which men have been repairing the exterior of the building.

I was looking forward at least to my regular walk the next day through Riverside Park to the shore of the Hudson River, which is just seven minutes away. But when I left our building, the hot, sooty, humid air had the opposite effect of the fresh breeze on the Edinboro campus—I didn’t want to be there. Although the expanse of river and sky was beautiful as usual, the sound of traffic on the nearby highway ruined it for me. I became so unhappy that I started thinking seriously about moving out of the city, and spent several hours over the next few days perusing real estate on the Internet.

Making the Shift
Fortunately, I had allowed time in my schedule to make this transition. I had no pressing projects, so I could reflect a lot on all of my experiences and digest them. Within a couple weeks I started feeling a little better, as I slowly eased back in to a different set of pleasures. I was glad to be in my own home and to teach my students. And it was fun to joke around in the kitchen again with my husband while we prepared dinner together. Then, video footage of interviews with summer program participants arrived on my computer. I was thrilled to hear them describe the transformative experiences they’d had, both musically and personally, and my energy really began to shift.

Day by day, the general picture of my life changed. I gradually got used to being back in the city and began reconnecting with people from the summer program in our online workshops and in individual conversations. I also started connecting with other musicians who want to come to next year’s program. The air quality in the city actually improved, and eventually I started enjoying my walks to the river again. As I let go of my time at Edinboro, I found myself coming up with exciting new ideas and projects for the year ahead.

Disorientation in Transitions
Transitions are vulnerable times. We have lost one experience and feel disoriented facing the next one. We need time to adjust—to appreciate and understand what has happened to us, so we can gear up for what’s coming next. If we don’t take the time we need, we carry pent up energy and confusion into our next activity.

In music too, we’re constantly challenged to move forward from one mood to another, one phrase to another, one harmony to another. And we often don’t allow time in our practicing to respond intelligently to these changes. When we go through a piece without connecting deeply to every part of it we can’t reveal the full depth and vitality of the music to our listeners.

Connecting the Dots
It never fails to amaze me that a page of music is actually made up of just dots and the spaces between them. That’s all we see written on the staff. Of course, we learn music as a language and can generally get a sense of the lines and textures these dots create. But to bring out the brilliance and depth in music requires more of us. We have to actually commit to absorbing each sound and each phrase as a thing in itself, in order to connect them all beautifully.

The Japanese concept of jo ha kyu—or beginning, middle, and end—is helpful and profound. Every event, everything we experience in time, has these three parts to it. Our phone rings and we pick it up and say, “Hello?” We begin a conversation, which  moves into different topics and tones of voice, and eventually comes to a close with, “Goodbye.” If we don’t appreciate the beginning, middle, and end as it’s happening, we might, rush through the ending and accidentally hang up on our friend. Or we might drag out the ending with a string of remarks—“OK, take care, give my best to your family, was good talking to you, enjoy the rest of your day, talk to you again, thanks for calling, all right, ‘bye, see you later, OK.” Whether we rush the ending or drag it out, we lose our full connection to the other person. If instead, we really feel the meaning of what we’re both saying, and we take time to think and relax and enjoy the conversation, we can feel uplifted by the communication and carry that good feeling into the rest of our day.

Getting Out of Your Head
Likewise, in making music, we need to relax and go fully into the sounds and rhythms that we’re playing or singing. This involves responding to sound with our heart and body, not just knowing the contour of a phrase. And it necessitates feeling the pulse organically and dynamically, not simply knowing the rhythmic patterns. Chapters 10 and 11 of The Art of Practicing discuss these processes in depth, and Chapter 11 mentions the importance of connecting with the beginning, middle, and end of a phrase.

This means you pay attention to how it feels to begin a new phrase, then noticie how the phrase opens up in the middle, and then follow it all the way to its end without anticipating the next one. It may sound simple. But it requires shifting gears from your mental concept of a phrase to actual, full-bodied engagement with it.

For example, you may habitually think, “The second phrase is similar to the first one, but because the melody goes higher in the second phrase, I need to get louder.” Such concepts are often completely valid, but the effect needs to be created not from your head but from really listening, on the spot. So instead of simply following your concept, you focus on how each sound creates a new sensation inside your body. Let the phrase end in its own time, instead of anticipating the next one.

When you go beyond your concepts and connect to music in this more visceral way, you discover that certain notes have more emotional power than you realized. Hearing each sound without anticipating the next opens up more energy in the music. Then, when the time comes to start the next phrase, that energy lends new life to the ongoing musical flow.

I invite you to try it and see what happens. And I’d love to hear from you about it.

Here’s to more expressiveness in your performing!

Madeline

 

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